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CASEY: As 2020 drew to a close, the Blue Ridge Parkway lost a lot of 'Friends'

CASEY: As 2020 drew to a close, the Blue Ridge Parkway lost a lot of 'Friends'

For more than three decades, the Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway have supported beautification work, amenities and programs along America's most visited national park. But on the final day of last year, that relationship ended.

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Once upon a time, there was an organization known as Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Over the course of 32 years, the nonprofit group raised funds to support maintenance and beautification efforts along its 469-mile-long namesake. The parkway is often cited as America’s most-visited national park.

In some of those years, the group raised millions of dollars, according to its tax returns. Even more importantly, the organization annually fielded and organized thousands of hours of labor by do-gooding volunteers.

On parkway property, they picked up trash, created and maintained hiking trails, planted viewshed-protecting trees and much more. In 2019 Friends volunteers contributed 13,444 hours of labor. In 2020, which was impacted by the pandemic, it was 9,574 hours.

Lynn Davis of Roanoke, who told me she’s the only Friends founder who remains alive, said the organization formed as the federal government began cutting taxpayer support to the parkway. The Friends stepped in to help the park deal with funding shortfalls that began in the 1980s.

This year, however, Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway quietly lopped “parkway” from its name. Now it’s known merely as “Friends of the Blue Ridge.” Unpaid Friends volunteers are no longer allowed to volunteer on parkway property. And that’s not all.

Recall the free-admission summer music series that once delighted audiences at the parkway-owned Roanoke Mountain campground? That was a Friends program. They’ve moved those concerts off parkway land, to Explore Park.

What gives?

The answer’s in an email the former Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway received last fall from the parkway’s then-acting superintendent, Neal Labrie. It declined to renew an annual agreement the Friends had with the National Park Service that allowed the Friends to support and work on the parkway.

“We have decided to let the current agreement expire on December 31, 2020, with no intent to renew,” Labrie wrote. “This decision was not reached lightly, and it has the support of [National Park Service] Leadership.”

The decision followed a couple years of prodding by the National Park Service, said Julie Whalen, executive director of the newly named Friends of the Blue Ridge.

The Park Service had encouraged the Friends, a mostly labor group headquartered in Roanoke, to merge with the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, a mostly fundraising outfit based in North Carolina in the same building as Blue Ridge Parkway’s headquarters.

Though merger talks occurred, the two groups could not come to an agreement, Whalen said.

“The parkway decided that working with one group was the best decision,” said Leesa Brandon, a spokeswoman for the park. Ultimately, the Park Service chose the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation over the Friends.

Whalen called the decision “a combination of not-a-surprise and a surprise at the same time,” she added, noting the memo about the agreement’s dissolution arrived with barely 60 days notice.

That’s why the Friends dropped “Parkway” from its name. As Friends of the Blue Ridge, it still has 10 chapters strung along the parkway. Its 1,300 dues-paying members and 600 active volunteers will instead concentrate efforts on projects and programs on privately owned land in communities along the parkway.

“We’re not dead, we just look different,” Whalen told me. “We’re trying to make lemonade out of lemons.”

Davis, who still serves as secretary to the Friends’ board of directors said in certain ways, the split has freed the Friends from bureaucratic overmanagement of a volunteer group. “Tight control” the Park Service exercised over the Friends has in many ways “diminished the outcomes of [the Friends’] efforts,” she added.

The next person I talked to about the split was Dan Wells of Salem, president of the Friends of the Blue Ridge board of directors.

“Basically, [Labrie] told us that having two philanthropic partners was confusing,” Wall told me. “That’s his rationale.” Wells added that he found the rationale confusing. But what could the Friends do?

Rather than dissolve, “we’ve been looking into other opportunities on how we can help communities,” Wells said.

Just one example of that was the 2021 move of a summer concert series from the Roanoke Mountain campground to Explore Park, which is not federally owned. (The next monthly concert, by the way, is July 18. The Blue Ridge Girls will begin playing at 5 p.m.)

Another product of the split is something you may have seen an announcement about recently. It concerns specialty Blue Ridge Parkway license tags issued by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation — which already sells a license tag in North Carolina — has applied to the Virginia DMV to sell a Blue Ridge Parkway tag in Virginia. Naturally, some revenue from that would go to the foundation.

Problem is, there’s already a Virginia tag for the parkway. It was created in 2012 by the Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway — which is now Friends of the Blue Ridge.

Through mid-June, the DMV had issued 9,780 of the Friends’-sponsored plates to Virginia registered vehicles. You’ve probably seen them. They feature a twisting road rising toward the peak of a light blue mountain.

Under a revenue-sharing program, the DMV keeps all the money from the first 1,000 sales, and sends $15 from each plate sold beyond 1,000 to the Friends. They’re still getting that revenue, and the Park Service can’t stop it, because the plate is the product of a law passed by the Virginia General Assembly.

Think about this situation for just a moment.

If the DMV ultimately issues the foundation’s specialty license plates, there’ll two different Blue Ridge Parkway tags — one supporting the Friends and the other supporting the foundation.

At least among Virginia motorists, that seems destined to promote confusion rather than eliminate it.

Contact metro columnist Dan Casey at 981-3423 or dan.casey@roanoke.com. Follow him on Twitter:.

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Dan Casey knows a little bit about a lot of things but not a heck of a lot about most things. That doesn't keep him from writing about them, however. So keep him honest!

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